Thursday, February 27, 2014

Loved Into Life: Vincent Harding

After some 50 years, Vincent Harding, colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Eastern Mennonite University once again. His smallish, unassuming manner and subdued speech belied an internal strength that permeated his comments and his life.

During a chapel address at EMU, he outlined numerous people from whom he had received love, and how these people shaped him into the person he is. It reminded me of the book Strength to Love written by his friend, whom he affectionately referred to as Martin. Hearing him speak, shaking his hand and exchanging introductions, made me feel part of a living history. 

His mother, his church community in New York City, and his elementary school teachers were all people whom he listed as his “lovers.” Then he was drafted into the army. He absolutely loved basic training; he was good at hitting the target with his rifle and was proficient at using a bayonet. At some point, however, he heard a voice with the question, “Vincent, how does learning to kill another human being square with your understanding of Jesus, who taught you to love your enemies?” 

He didn’t identify the voice as coming from God, and he didn’t elaborate on how he left or stayed in the army, but identified the voice as “love that loved him into life.” Upon release he found himself at the University of Chicago doing graduate work in history. It was there that he met a “strange group of people” who were the Mennonites. Eventually he became a pastor in a Mennonite Church on the south side of Chicago that was one of the few churches interested in staying and ministering in a neighborhood where whites were leaving in droves and blacks were taking their place.

Through the Mennonite Central Committee, he and his wife Rosemarie, the first black graduate of Goshen College, established a Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit in Atlanta, Georgia, a few blocks from the home of Martin Luther King. 

There is more that I could say about his life’s story and his comments yesterday, but I’d like to focus on his character. I kept asking myself as I observed him, how can this man be so calm, so collected, with love exuding from his every pore? After facing dogs and water hoses, irrational hatred and jail, how can he be so serene? Why isn’t he consumed by anger, by the wish for revenge? After all, only a few things have changed since the Civil Rights movement reached its height in the late 60s.

He claimed that his “strength to love” came from being loved, and named those who loved him. I suspect something much deeper. I believe that he has a spiritual life that goes beyond saying a few prayers around meal time and reading a quick devotional before beginning his day. True, receiving love from the people he named is a very important element, but that love needs to be sustained by a divine love that one can only find through a deep relationship with God. That is the only way one can sustain a true love for enemies and overcome anger and the desire for revenge. 

Vincent Harding is a wonderful example of someone who combines a deep spirituality; an inner world, with a deep commitment to social justice; work in the outer world. Would that there were more Christians following his example.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Presence, Patience, Prayer: Cultivating Compassion Among the Marginalized

This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on Missional Spirituality for the month of February. MennoNerds is exploring through this event Spirituality through an Anabaptist lens and what it means concerning participation in the mission of God.

When working with marginalized people, presence, patience and prayer are necessary elements of the ministry of compassion. As a chaplain who visits Spanish-speaking patients in our local hospital, I have listened to stories not only of physical pain, but stories of pain from marginalization and alienation. 

 “My whole life is a lie,” sobbed María in Spanish on her hospital bed. “I came here for a better life and have found nothing but disappointments.” María’s latest setback was an unexpected bout with appendicitis. 

María had told me that she was from Honduras. Her confession came after a telephone call interrupted our conversation. She identified herself as someone else, saying that she was from Puerto Rico. It was obvious that she was working and living with a false identity.

I listened as she poured her heart out to me, detailing all the hardships of being considered illegal in this country, being far away from her own children, not being able to be with her sister who was currently dying of cancer, and having a stack of unpaid bills that was growing higher each day. The American dream had turned into a nightmare.

There was little I could do to change María’s ugly and unjust situation. Nevertheless, being present to her and listening to her in her own language, showed care and compassion. God became manifest “on earth as in heaven.”

Jorge was in the hospital for more than a week when I met him. He was isolated for fear of tuberculosis. He didn’t really want to talk to me, another white man with a tie, a clipboard and an assumed agenda. But I persisted, insisting that I was there to stand alongside him in these moments of pain and suffering. 

After my third visit, he began to open up. Slowly his torturous story began to unfold. He had left his wife and two children more than a year and a half ago to seek a better life in the United States. He started with little money and no legal documents. He had to cross three international borders to get to his still unknown destination.

Hitch-hiking and freight trains were his main means of transportation. Along the way he tried to do odd jobs to sustain himself. He reached my city on a freight train suffering from a high fever and a debilitating cough. He got off the train and checked into our hospital with no friends, no family, no money, no place to call home and no papers. 

Once again, there was little I could do to change his desperate and unjust situation. My persistence eventually showed Jorge compassion; a sense of God’s presence in an oppressive world too often hostile to him. 

As I entered the hospital room and introduced myself, I could feel the tension in the air. The woman lying in the bed had lost a child in birth. I assumed that the man standing by her bedside was her husband. I expressed my sorrow at their loss and tried to be a loving, non-threatening presence. Every attempt at communication failed. I had seldom felt so uncomfortable. 

Hoping to salvage a little of the visit, I asked if I could pray for them. Somehow they agreed. I went over to the woman, laid my hand on her shoulder, and prayed a very simple prayer, hoping to end my ordeal and be on my way. When I lifted my head, the man was sobbing, his shoulders visibly shaking. He proceeded to enumerate a litany of woes that he and his wife had gone through in the past three months, culminating with the death of their newborn. 

The atmosphere in the room changed remarkably after the prayer. The relationship between me and the couple changed. What started out as a forced, awkward encounter, had become a moment of compassion and sensing God’s presence.

Each encounter emphasized one of the concepts more than the other, but they all included presence, patience and prayer. Being patiently present and praying with those who are at the margins of our society demonstrates compassion. Even if the injustice isn’t reversed, the presence of God is experienced by those on the margin.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Shame Game

Father Greg Boyle, in his delightful book Tattoos on the Heart, quotes John Bradshaw by writing, “shame is at the root of every addiction” (p. 43). Fr. Boyle works with mostly Latino gangs in Los Angeles and makes many astute observations about human nature, including the quote on shame. He has experienced first hand the results of gang members wearing a heavy cloak of shame. 

“I’m no good,” “I am worthless,” are tapes that play over and over in the heads of the shamed, and in the case of the Latino gang members, being with each other is the most love they have ever experienced. However, the addictions that they acquire necessitate posturing and defending territory, propelling them into a cycle of crime and violence, acting out on their shame.

Every culture in which I have lived or with which I have had significant contact, uses shame as a means to make people conform to societal expectations. Some cultures are more shame-based than others, but all function by shaming what is considered aberrant behavior. 

In my own background, my mother would frequently say to us, “What will the neighbors think?” Apparently it wasn’t so much whether the behavior was good or bad, but rather how the behavior would be seen by the eyes of the culture. We constantly felt the gaze of one particularly scowling neighbor, and felt the shame of her frowns whether we were aware of what we were doing or not. 

Religious systems are particularly adept at producing shame. They prescribe many more “thou shalt nots” than “thou shalts;” how not to behave, rather than how to behave. Impossible rules are set up to follow and falling short of these ideals produces shame. These rules mainly focus on the negative aspects of the sacred texts to which their religion ascribes, and forget the positive ones. 

If we are made in the “image and likeness of God,” and that God pronounced creation “good,” why are we so intent on tearing down this goodness with shaming each other? Why can’t we recognize the goodness in each other rather creating rules to shame each other?

I know that in the classroom students respond much better to affirmation than shaming. In one particular case, I had a student who was faltering in many areas, both in her personal life and her academic life. She presented quite an attitude in class, posturing much like I imagine the gang members in LA do. In spite of her meager academic achievement in my class, I noticed something special about her. She could reproduce the sounds of the Spanish language better than anyone else in the class. 

One day after class I called her aside and told her that she had a “sweet Spanish accent,” and that she had “potential to become fluent in Spanish.” She probably thought I was going to shame her. Instead, I gave her an affirmation. The compliment took her off guard, but her face lit up in one of the brightest smiles I have ever seen. Her attitude and grades in the class improved exponentially. I could tell many similar stories. Yet our system is intent on shaming and putting down rather than building up and recognizing the God-given image and likeness within each of us. 

What will the neighbors think? Is not the question to ask. That is the shame game. The question to ask is, How will you reflect the image of God to your neighbor?